The Conflict Process

Learning OUtcomes

  • Identify stages of the conflict process

The conflict process—that is, the process by which conflict arises—can be seen in five stages. Those stages are:

  •     Potential opposition or incompatibility
  •     Cognition and personalization
  •     Intentions
  •     Behavior
  •     Outcomes

Potential Opposition or Incompatibility

The first stage in the conflict process is the existence of conditions that allow conflict to arise. The existence of these conditions doesn’t necessarily guarantee conflict will arise. But if conflict does arise, chances are it’s because of issues regarding communication, structure, or personal variables.

  • Communication. Conflict can arise from semantic issues, misunderstanding, or noise in the communication channel that hasn’t been clarified. For instance, your new manager, Steve, is leading a project and you’re on the team. Steve is vague about the team’s goals, and when you get to work on your part of the project, Steve shows up half the way through to tell you you’re doing it wrong. This is conflict caused by communication.
  • Structure. Conflict can arise based on the structure of a group of people who have to work together. For instance, let’s say you sell cars, and your co-worker has to approve the credit of all the people who purchase a vehicle from you. If your co-worker doesn’t approve your customers, then he is standing between you and your commission, your good performance review, and your paycheck. This is a structure that invites conflict.
  • Personal variables. Conflict can arise if two people who work together just don’t care for each other. Perhaps you work with a man and you find him untrustworthy. Comments he’s made, the way he laughs, the way he talks about his wife and family, all of it just rubs you the wrong way. That’s personal variable, ripe to cause a conflict.

Cognition and Personalization

In the last section, we talked about how conflict only exists if it’s perceived to exist. If it’s been determined that potential opposition or incompatibility exists and both parties feel it, then conflict is developing.

If Joan and her new manager, Mitch, are having a disagreement, they may perceive it but not be personally affected by it. Perhaps Joan is not worried about the disagreement. It is only when both parties understand that conflict is brewing, and they internalize it as something that is affecting them, that this stage is complete.


Intentions come between people’s perceptions and emotions and help those who are involved in the potential conflict to decide to act in a particular way.

One has to infer what the other person meant in order to determine how to respond to a statement or action. A lot of conflicts are escalated because one party infers the wrong intentions from the other person. There are five different ways a person can respond to the other party’s statements or actions.

  • Competing. One party seeks to satisfy his own interests regardless of the impact on the other party.
  • Collaborating. One party, or both, desire to fully satisfied the concerns of all parties involved in the conflict.
  • Avoiding. One party withdraws from or suppresses the conflict once it is recognized.
  • Accommodating. One party seeks to appease the opponent once potential conflict is recognized.
  • Compromising. Each party to the conflict seeks to give up something to resolve the conflict.

We’ll talk about this a little more in the next section when we use these styles to manage conflict.


Behavior is the stage where conflict becomes evident, as it includes the statements, actions and reactions of the parties involved in the conflict. These behaviors might be overt attempts to get the other party to reveal intentions, but they have a stimulus quality that separates them from the actual intention stage.

Behavior is the actual dynamic process of interaction. Perhaps Party A makes a demand on Party B, Party B argues back, Party A threatens, and so on. The intensity of the behavior falls along a conflict oriented continuum. If the intensity is low, the conflict might just be a minor misunderstanding, and if the intensity is high, the conflict could be an effort to harm or even destroy the other party.


Outcomes of a conflict can be either functional or dysfunctional:

  • Functional outcomes occur when conflict is constructive. It may be hard to think of times when people disagree and argue, and the outcome is somehow good.  But think of conflict, for a moment, as the antidote to groupthink. If group members want consensus, they’re bound to all agree before all the viable alternatives have been reviewed. Conflict keeps that from happening. The group may be close to agreeing on something, and a member will speak up, arguing for another point of view. The conflict that results could yield a positive result.
  • Dysfunctional outcomes are generally more well known and understood. Uncontrolled opposition breeds discontent, which acts to sever ties and eventually leads to the dissolution of the group. Organizations meet their ultimate demise more often than you’d think as a result of dysfunctional conflict. People who hate each other and don’t get along can’t make decisions to run a company well.

Practice Question

Managing conflict in today’s business world is a must. We’ll look next at how that’s done.